Maybe I was simply delusional. Perhaps I was drinking the Kool Aid. This past April on EPL Talk.com I had engaged in a back and forth dialogue with the publisher of that site, Christopher Harris (aka the Gaffer) arguing the English Premier League would always have a niche following in the US and that Major League Soccer was already more popular on TV and would grow remarkably in popularity as a televised sport in the near future, as opposed to the EPL whose fan support in this country was at a ceiling and based primarily on ex-pats.
At the time Fox Soccer Channel was not Nielsen rated and my theory was based on instinct and the opinions of those who I speak with (most of whom are very pro MLS and US Soccer and not particularly enamored with the Premier League) not any sort of empirical evidence. Well now the evidence is in and could not have been more wrong about the viewership for both leagues.
According to the latest issue of the Sports Business Journal published by Street and Smith’s (now the parent company of the Sporting News incidentally) MLS TV ratings are about as bad as can be imagined. ESPN2’s Thursday night rating fell this season and the telecasts averaged a 0.2 rating and was watched in an average of 251,000 homes weekly. ESPN 2 has achieved higher average ratings in prime time for such sports as Poker and Bowling in the last year. However, those sports have limited upside potential when compared with Football. But Football in the US fans clearly aren’t enamored with MLS: US National Team telecasts on ESPN and ESPN have averaged a 0.6 rating this year and the Euros averaged a 0.8 on the networks. The lack of viewership on ESPN 2 is a major concern as the network has invested a rights fee in the league for the first time. Despite the signing of David Beckham, MLS averaged less viewers in 2008 on ESPN2 than the league did in 2006 before Beckham was signed and before the new TV deal took affect. But even more worrying is that MLS games averaged according to BNet a 0.5 rating on ESPN and a 0.3 rating on ESPN 2 for the 1998 season. MLS also averaged a 0.9 rating on ABC that season, when the network broadcast 13 regular season games. The lone ABC telecast this season between the league’s two most successful clubs historically, garnered a 1.1 rating as a lead in to the Euro 2008 final which achieved a 3.2 rating. So in essence a smaller percentage of TV viewers nationally are watching MLS in 2008 than did in 1998, despite the league having more of a mainstream media presence and having two more franchises. I would note that personally I probably watched more MLS games in 1998 and 1999 than I have in 2007 and 2008 because the league despite the funny clock rules seemed to have better quality to it in those days and some teams like DC United circa 1996-1999 were in my mind as entertaining to watch as any club in the world. MLS currently does not provide that sort of entertainment and looking at these figures I am not alone in believing that.
On the lighter side what should be encouraging is that few viewers if any have tuned in for late season and playoff games from Foxborough where reported attendances in the 5,000-7,500 range have looked generous and dishonest.
Fox Soccer Channel has been Nielsen rated now for about a month. This has been a good thing for the network to prove to potential advertisers that people do tune in for their early morning EPL matches. Matches involving Manchester United or Liverpool have averaged 211,000 viewers on the network. In fact when you consider that FSC is in less than 1/3 the homes that have ESPN2, the Premier League ratings when matched up with the MLS Thursday Primetime ratings are most impressive. Also consider the time of the Premier League matches: often times very early in the morning on the west coast of the U.S. and still at an odd time on the east coast of the US.
MLS ratings on FSC have not been as encouraging for the sport. The matchup between Chivas USA and Houston, the top two teams in the west got a rare 0.0 rating and was viewed in only 24,000 homes. Including the first weekend of the playoffs, FSC is averaging 30,000 viewers for MLS Saturday night matches.
Thirteen years into the life of Major League Soccer and the league seems to be having little success winning core football fans over and worse yet as the sport grows in popularity stateside, MLS seems to be left behind. the hardcore niche audience watching and supporting the league is more passionate than ever, but if this league is to truly succeed we cannot continue to see the regression of TV numbers. It is somewhat unfortunate and unfair but TV ratings are the surest determination many in the media and on Madison Avenue use to ascertain the popularity of a sporting product. With this in mind, MLS has much work to do.